David Cameron discusses strategies to end FGM and forced marriage at the Girl Summit last summer. Photo: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty
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What are the practical steps we need to take to end FGM in the UK?

As MPs discuss a national action plan to end FGM, campaigners explain the practical steps the country needs to take to eradicate this abuse.

It was once an obscure, hidden strain of violence against women. Ignored by the state, its victims were silenced and isolated, their pain dismissed. But, in recent years, female genital mutilation has been brought into the public consciousness. We now have data on how widespread FGM is in the UK, and it tells us that 170,000 women and girls are living with the effects of this abuse in the UK, and another 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk. For the first time, an accused practitioner of FGM is being prosecuted.

But despite all this high-profile conversation, the government is still yet to systematically tackle the growing prevalence of this violent abuse in the UK with the implementation of an organised, national plan of action. Last year, a major inquiry was launched by the Home Affairs Committee to do just that: find practical solutions to end this in this country. Its findings have now been published, and this afternoon, in the stately calm of Westminster Hall, MPs debate whether they feel there is “a case” for government action. 

Grassroots activists fought hard to bring this issue to Westminster. Two major anti-FGM organisations, Daughters of Eve and Equality Now, set up a petition last year which called on the government to end this “very British problem”, and sparked the current inquiry. But now the Home Office has finally responded to their pleas for action, is their proposed course the right one?

The report outlines five clear steps that should be taken to eradicate FGM in the UK:

  1. The achievement of successful prosecutions
  2. The safeguarding of at-risk girls
  3. Changes to the law
  4. Improved working with communities to abandon FGM
  5. Better services for women and girls already living with FGM

Nimko Ali, the co-founder of Daughters of Eve, has written with disarming candour on FGM, as both a survivor and a campaigner. She has repeatedly called for practical solutions to end the practice, insisting that it simply needs to be handled in the same way as all other forms of child abuse. She told me that while she celebrates the fact that action finally seems to be approaching, she feels that some aspects of the report misunderstand the issue, specifically the aim of “working with communities to abandon FGM”. That word, “communities”, she says, is troublesome to her. 

“It’s dehumanising. I wonder, ‘what do they mean when they say communities?’ These girls are Bristolian, or they're Welsh, or they're Londoners. There's no single community identity. I always say, forget culture, forget community, and think about the child.” 

It’s an area of the FGM debate that has been particularly thorny. On Newsnight in 2012, Muna Hassan, a young activist for the equality charity Integrate Bristol, explained how she saw politicians’ slowness to act on ending FGM as a result of both a racist othering of FGM victims, and a fear of appearing culturally insensitive. “What would you do if the girl had blue eyes and blonde hair? Would FGM still be carrying on in the UK?” she asked, before telling David Cameron to “grow a pair and do something about FGM”. Last year, Diane Abbott was criticised for saying that the practice was “embedded in culture”, and said that the government must “understand why people who consider themselves conscientious family members would collude with this process”. 

Ali thinks the idea of “working with” practitioners of FGM is unhelpful. “This is child abuse, it’s as simple as that. You wouldn't negotiate with paedophiles in order to defeat paedophilia. No, you engage with a wider general public.” 

Ali also sees the report’s emphasis on prosecuting practitioners of FGM as misplaced. “Prosecution should not be the priority. Every time someone says, ‘We need to get a prosecution’, I just keep hearing that we've already failed a girl in order to get that prosecution. Preventing FGM is the priority. If we prevent it, then we break the cycle.”

Ali knows from experience that the women directly affected by FGM are more concerned with prevention than prosecution. “I had a conversation with a mother once, who was concerned about her daughter being cut. I asked her, ‘would you want somebody arrested if they cut your child?’ and she said, ‘Ultimately, they committed a crime, but I can never un-cut my daughter’.

“What she said stayed with me, it was so powerful, and so heartfelt. A prosecution can legitimise your pain as an adult, but it can never undo those scars. So I would rather prevent those scars and prevent the trauma, than get someone locked up in prison. Behind every prosecution is a child that has been failed.” 

Mary Wandia, FGM programme manager at Equality Now, similarly prioritises several other prevention strategies over retrospective arrests. She argues that to eliminate FGM, “simultaneous actions need to take place aimed at prevention, protection of girls at risk, service provision and working in partnerships”. While she acknowledges that progress has been made, she notes that “the government has yet to fully engage on several fronts, including the adequate provision of support to survivors, raising awareness at a national level and ensuring that front-line professionals receive appropriate training to ensure that all girls at risk are protected.” 

Anti-FGM campaigners come back again and again to the training of front-line professionals. The Home Office report makes it clear that an awareness of how to help at-risk girls is a vital tool for all professionals working in health care, education, social care, and the police forces. It’s this part of the report that chimes most strongly with the advice of activists. 

Muna Hassan told me that in her mind “one of the most important things the government can do to tackle FGM is to ensure education around gender based violence is statutory in all schools across the UK: in order to end FGM within a generation we need to empower the future generation of parents. Compulsory training and reporting amongst all sectors working with children is also incredibly important. Being able to tell a child is at risk, could possibly save a life.” 

It’s this part of the report that Ali, too, is most hopeful for. “It's about empowerment and education. And we need to give teachers, social workers, and all those people the tools and the confidence to say ‘something’s wrong.’” 

What would Ali say to the MPs debating today? “I think it's great that this conversation is happening, but it's taken a long time to actually get to this point. Let's not play party politics with the lives of young women and children, and let's just move this forward. We can end FGM but it's about working together in order to do that. There are girls who today are three years old, and by the time the next parliament ends in 2020, those girls will be at risk of FGM. So I want to know what the next government is going to do to save them. There are children being born today that we can save.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.